Kelvin Wade’s column, “All expenses paid for secret knowledge hunters,” published Jan. 17, criticizes three members of the Fairfield-Suisun Sewer District Board for attending a California Association of Sanitation Agencies conference this month in Indian Wells.
It reads like a comedy with a laugh track; almost a guaranteed response from government critics. It’s a too-easy-to-write piece, with all the information available online, both for the expenses (a public record) and the amenities of the conference location. At least Kelvin resisted using the word “junket” this time, unlike in his columns on the same subject in May. I mean, who is in favor of junkets? One hardly has to think!
Allow me to present the other side, because there is one, an important one.
Groups like CASA exist for one purpose, to bring elected board and staff members from local agencies together for education and action. The education is an end in itself, to make better board and staff members. But it also fuels the action, which is lobbying, mostly, and other forms of individual and group advocacy on behalf of their organizations. That means speaking for us in Sacramento, Washington, D.C. and elsewhere, and I want them to be good at it, don’t you?
There is no substitute for the networking and team building that can go on in face-to-face meetings like conferences. When I attend conferences, I find some of the most valuable interactions I have are over the lunches, in conversation with someone I’ve not met before, or meeting people right after a session breaks up and we ask questions or discuss what we just heard. It’s these chance encounters that provide added value from a well-organized conference that’s difficult to measure.
Organizations like CASA tend to hold their conferences at nice places for a simple reason: They want people to attend. Luxury is not what the associations are looking for in their conference venues; they are more sensitive to the issues raised about spending public money than people may realize.
Other factors are more important. Only so many places in the state can handle a conference of several thousand attendees. There needs to be adequate hotel accommodations in the area and the conference facility has to have lots of properly equipped rooms for breakout sessions as well as a large room for general sessions. If the conference provides meals, and CASA does, most of them are lunches with a general session program. That requires a kitchen that can produce and serve a large number of meals at one time.
I don’t advocate attendees spending money on first-class airfare or pricy bottles of wine at public expense, but I don’t begrudge them staying at the conference hotel, having some decent meals and socializing after the day is done. All that can add to the networking, team building and chance encounters that bring added value to the attendees and their organizations.
Of course, the associations can’t control how attendees behave on their own. There have been scandalous expenses at conferences by some public officials. As a result, the state passed a law requiring every public agency to adopt a code of ethics and provide ethics training to board members. The agency also has to adopt travel and conference policies that naturally become public information.
The DR should obtain and publish those policies and check if they are being followed rather than imply that our public officials are off without any reasonable controls or discipline concerning expenses. That’s more of a private sector thing these days. Have you seen what some of these CEOs do with company money?
We don’t pay our board members much, and the least we can do for the time they commit is to not force them either to stay home or go third class when attending conferences. They serve so you and I don’t have to become sewer system or governance experts. Board members who pointedly refuse to attend conferences out of some effort to appear populist are doing us a disservice, as is, therefore, Kelvin’s column.
Richard L. (Rick) Wood retired from the city of Fairfield’s Public Works Department and lives in Fairfield. Reach him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.